It was partly to take refuge from the present (this is what motivates most of our leisure activities, let’s face it) that I stole inside a dusty footnote to history, and an ancient edition of a novel by the 19th Century English Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli.
One of England’s most famous statesmen, much admired by Queen Victoria, ‘Dizzy’ was also famous for writing novels. I have heard him referred to as the Jeffrey Archer of this day. I had thought that this might be profoundly unfair to the man, but changed my mind when I actually started reading ‘Lothair.’
It’s an unintentionally hilarious, Sunday afternoon garden party romp in which heavily bearded English lords find their collars growing even stiffer as they fret over the problems of the Empire, and to a lesser extent, the world, the world being obviously a lot less important.
All gloom (and indeed coherence) is happily banished however, when a ravishingly attractive, ringleted daughter steps forward with a plate full of begonias freshly plucked from the garden. ‘Heah faw-theh, aaan’t they simply delightful?’
They are indeed, thinks Lord Trufflebrain, ruminating further that life shall always be perfect so long as a man has eleven virtually identical ringleted daughters to bestow flowers upon him at all manner of times during the day or night, an empire on which the sun never sets, gardens the size of Chesire, and a small army of stooping servants to take care of them all for half a farthing a week, plus all the mulch they can eat.
Only much later perhaps, during the throes of a very brief existential crisis round about Chapter CXXXVIIIX or somewhere, might Lord Trufflebrain wonder if his daughters should have been educated to do something other than walk up on him in gardens with platefuls of begonias. It is 4am. He is in his garden, reflecting that the begonias are disappearing quicker than the crawling army of servants can replace them, and wondering how far the art of carrying begonias randomly up to strangers will sustain his daughters in life once (God forbid) Lord Trufflebrain has gone to his reward.
Suddenly, a daughter pops out from behind him, impeccably ringleted and clad in a flowing white gown in spite of the earliness of the hour. She is holding out another plate. ‘Heah, faw-theh, aaaan’t they simply delightful.’ ‘Oh well,’ thinks Lord Trufflebrain, ‘that’s all right then,’ and proceeds to happily devour the late night feast.
If Lord Trufflebrain was around now, he might ruminate next to a microphone about each of his eleven daughters having remarkable asses, and how, if it wasn’t for pesky laws against polygamy and incest (surely intended mainly to keep the poor in check, and not to constrain the liberty of men like Lord Trufflebrain), he might marry the whole eleven of them at once. But we are speaking of a different time, an entirely different fake reality.
A perusal of ‘Lothair’ produced two thoughts. One, crap books, also known as ‘chick lit,’ or, to employ briefly their proper title, ‘shit,’ didn’t just happen a few years ago. They have always been with us, it’s that now there are so many more of them, and their authors seem to own the airwaves.
The other thought was occasioned by a fascinating discussion which occurs somewhere around Page 101,896 (give or take) of the novel. At the end of yet another nine hour banquet, during which the girls have done their begonia bringing thing, the men have smoked and drunk themselves into oblivion and the maids have deftly removed all the pee and puke pots, a lady who lives near the west coast (wherever the hell that is) is asked whether she thinks the gulf stream is changing direction.
This lady is described to us as ‘a serious woman.’ I’m not too sure what that means in the context of a Disraeli novel, but I suppose we can infer that there is slightly more to her life than the relentless presentation of plates of decorative flowers to senior male relatives.
She replies that she has seen much extreme climate of late, but that talk of the gulf stream shifting is premature, not to say hysterical, and people should not get carried away so much.
This, by the way, was sometime in the 1850’s or 60’s. There are times, I admit, when I succumb to these moments of Philip K Dick paranoia and wonder if any of the change we claim to see around us every day is even slightly real, whether, in a sense, we’re simply living through tableaux of the same moments, over and over and over again. Only the costumes are slightly different. The ringlets are among the very few things to have really changed.